A $500 million fine isn’t enough for Boeing. Their executives should be prosecuted.A $500 million fine isn’t enough for Boeing, whose 737 Max airplanes murdered 346 people, Joe Nocera argues for The Free Press.
Family members hold pictures of loved ones killed in Boeing crashes during the Senate hearing on “Boeing’s Broken Safety Culture” on June 18, 2024. (Tom Williams via Getty Images)

You Want to Fix Boeing? Prosecute Its Executives.

A $500 million fine isn’t enough for a company that murdered 346 people, Joe Nocera argues.

Let’s face it: Boeing has the government by the balls.

It is, after all, America’s only commercial aircraft manufacturer, with over 170,000 employees in Washington State, South Carolina, and Virginia, most of whom make middle-class to upper-middle-class wages. In dollar volume, it is the country’s largest exporter. And to top it off, Boeing is a critical defense contractor, with a space division that recently sent two astronauts to the International Space Station (though thanks to problems with Boeing’s spacecraft, it’s a little unclear when, exactly, those astronauts will return to earth). 

Late Sunday night, faced with the possibility of a trial, Boeing agreed to a settlement offered by the Department of Justice, pleading guilty to a felony for the two 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019 that caused the death of 346 passengers and crew. The felony charge comes with a probationary period of three years and a fine of nearly $500 million. Boeing has also agreed to invest $455 million to bolster its safety and compliance programs and accept the oversight of an independent compliance monitor who will submit annual reports to the government. And board members will be required to meet with families of the victims.

The Justice Department will no doubt characterize the settlement as just punishment for a recidivist company. Don’t believe it. This is a company that murdered those 346 people as surely as if it had lined them up against a wall and shot them. There was no pilot error involved in those crashes, nor was it the result of some unlucky accident. Those planes crashed because Boeing had cut so many corners in rushing this new 737 model to the marketplace that a disaster was inevitable. As one engineer memorably put it in an email to a colleague: “This airplane was designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys.”

What’s more, to a company the size of Boeing, with $78 billion in annual revenue, a half billion-dollar fine is pocket change. Back in 2021, Boeing accepted a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department that called for it to pay $2.5 billion, including a criminal fine, money for the victims’ families, and compensation to its airline customers. Even that amount wasn’t enough to cause Boeing to change its ways: in January 2024, a door blew out of a 737 Max in flight, proving that safety was still not a top priority on the factory floor. Thus began the latest round of investigations, recriminations, and Boeing’s promise, with this settlement, to do better.

The families of the victims are furious, with one of their lawyers calling it “a sweetheart deal.” Can you blame them? Some executives have lost their jobs, but no one has ever been held responsible for the wrongdoing that led to the crashes and to a culture that ignored safety concerns if it got in the way of a higher stock price. The top executives will still make millions. Boeing will still be able to conduct its defense business, even though convicted felons are not supposed to be eligible for government contracts. The settlement makes it obvious that the government is afraid of what would happen—not just to Boeing but to the Defense Department and even the larger economy—if it hit the company as hard as the company deserves to be hit.

“I’m ashamed to see that this is our justice system at work,” Ed Pierson, a Boeing whistleblower who has since founded the Foundation for Aviation Safety, told me yesterday afternoon. “It provides zero accountability. The executives who pressured employees to take shortcuts—they’re culpable. This settlement is allowing individuals who have acted criminally to walk away.”

And that’s the larger point. The Justice Department seems to believe it’s meaningful to charge a company with a felony. But it’s not. Companies don’t commit felonies—people do. And if people aren’t held responsible—and sent to prison when necessary—then they’ll never have the incentive they need to change. 

You want to fix Boeing? Then prosecute its executives. There is nothing like the prospect of prison to focus the mind.

Joe Nocera is a columnist for The Free Press and the co-author of The Big Fail. Follow him on X @opinion_joe, and read his piece, “Boeing’s Dead Whistleblower Spoke the Truth.”

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